The Fulbright Grant Halftime Show

Please note: This blog post will be a lot less formal than my others, if for no other reason than just because I’m starting to write it at 12:23 AM on a Wednesday. In fact, I’m writing this one pretty much solely for myself, so take the whole thing with a grain of salt. I am rushing to post it because it’s my only chance to write about May before I leave for summer break. In nine hours, Clay and I will hop in Molly Brown and head back to the Dorsett hotel for the Mid-Year Conference, in which all 98 ETAs will reconvene in Kuala Lumpur to celebrate and reflect on the first half of the grant year.

Two nights ago, over a late dinner of roti canai and Milo ais, Clay and I discussed the conflicting feelings arising from this milestone. In some ways, it feels like time has flown by. In others – in fact, for me at least, most of the time these past several weeks – it feels more like a slow trudge. This break, as with the March one, comes at the perfect moment. I’ve been going a little stir crazy recently; my temper is short, my stress levels are elevated and my mind is running on fumes. Two and a half weeks outside of the kampung, with very limited communication and a whole new set of adventures to partake in, is exactly what the klinik doctor would have ordered for me.

Given that I’ve reached the halfway point in my time here (or, at least, almost reached… the real halfway point is June 2), I want to look back upon the seven reminders I set for myself in my last blog post from the States. Each of the seven has come into play in unique and influential ways over these past five months, so they are worth quickly reflecting upon before I turn off my laptop for two and a half weeks.

Without further ado, #1: I will have a worst day in Malaysia, but I will also have a best day.

Indeed, this is true, and this knowledge has helped me get through some of the hardest times here while also helping me savor the best ones. The worst days I’ve had so far were the popped tire incident and a few uncomfortable conversations I’ve had with someone important over the past month (which regretfully I cannot elaborate on until November at the earliest), but even these had positive aspects. Meanwhile, the best days (at least my favorites so far) were Sports Day, my birthday and the field trip to Mud.

More commonly, however, my days are roller coaster rides with extreme high and low points, likely a large part of the reason I feel so completely burnt out when I get home every afternoon. Because of my anxious tendencies, I linger on the negative moments more, but my awareness of this is the number one factor that helps me consciously combat it. I will say, in case I have not vocalized it before, I feel incredibly fortunate to have Clay as my roommate. We have tense moments just like any friends would, but I literally can’t fathom how I would be handling this experience without him as my partner in crime.

Additionally, I would be remiss not to mention Ros. She has been such an incredible backbone for me this whole year, and I cannot picture my Malaysian experience without her as my “second Mom”. To be frank, we have had some trouble recently with our mismatched motives. I want to be sure she understands that I do really love her and I truly enjoy every minute we get to spend together. When I do not respond to her messages, it is not because I am angry with her; instead, it is because I maybe am feeling a little tired and anxious and just need space to rest by myself. With a little room to breathe, I will be good as new the next day and ready to share more laughs and love with her! (Side note: I am also proud of myself for being aware enough to realize this as a need of mine, as it’s a fairly new development for me in my own personal self-understanding.)

#2: I will have to make sacrifices in Malaysia, but my experiences will reward me.

The biggest thing that comes to mind here is just how rural my placement is. I have truly felt blessed that I do not feel as though I “want” for anything here. However, the community itself is very small and the distance I must travel to get to school, grocery stores, restaurants, etc. can be a little disheartening sometimes. On the positive side, because Clay and I live in a legit kampung, we are getting a very authentic Malaysian cultural experience. Perhaps my favorite part is that, in living at a homestay, we have an actual family unit here to help us adjust to and understand the culture.

An added bonus of this homestay in particular is that, because of Mr. Ibrahim’s great reputation, there are constantly other guests in the rooms adjacent to us. We have been able to meet and converse with many different Malaysians just by walking out our front door. The funniest and most recent relevant development on that front happened one night a few weeks ago. I was doing work on my laptop in my bedroom and outside on the unfinished patio I heard the unmistakable sounds of teenage boys shout-singing “Sudah Ku Tahu”, a song I am only familiar with because my students have insisted I learn it on guitar. I went out to see what the fuss was about, only to discover that a group of twenty post-secondary Malaysian students had moved into the room behind the patio. Yes, that’s right. TWENTY BOYS in ONE ROOM. Even better, we came to learn they are supposed to stay here for FIVE MONTHS! I spent several hours getting to know them that first night, but I am sure we will have many more interactions to come. A few of them have actually asked me to help them learn English, which I am open to trying. Given the ridiculousness of the situation though, Clay and I have resorted to calling them “Iota Mu Zeta Alpha” – the Homestay Imza fraternity.

#3: I have more to learn from the people I meet there than I have to teach.

As I write this, I am getting very tired and am afraid my writing will soon become incoherent, so I’m going to resort to brief anecdotes. For this lesson, the memory that stands out came from my visit to Azamy’s home the first Saturday in May. He had been very excited to let me come visit him, and I was equally eager to finally have an interaction with students outside of school hours. I came early in the morning; his directions to me were basically, “Drive to Kota Setia, park when you see water and I will find you.” That was intimidating to plug into Google Maps, but it could not have been more accurate. As it turns out, Azamy lives with his grandparents and his younger brother Hakimi (with special needs) in a small shack right next to the riverfront in Kota Setia. His grandmother runs a food stall, while his grandfather goes fishing to catch “udang galah” (king prawn) to serve in the restaurant. After eating mee bandung and watching some Malay anime cartoons with Hakimi, Azamy and I went and sat by the waterfront.

I started teaching him a few guitar chords, which he really seemed to enjoy. As we sat and played, we watched the river waters slowly rise until they covered the bottom step I had been standing on earlier. Azamy opened up to me about his family situation; his parents are separated and through the divorce he and his brother moved in with their grandparents. He seemed flustered trying to discuss this, but I gave him the time and space to share however he felt most comfortable. He then excitedly brought out his diary to show me. I was nervous at first because I did not want to read anything private of his, but he responded, “It’s okay, Sir. It’s all in Malay so you won’t understand anyway.” He then invited me to write him a message in the journal, which touched me deeply. I gave him some sincere words of wisdom as both a teacher and the child of a “broken home”. I then read it with him to be sure he understood. He seemed to really appreciate it.

The reason I chose this anecdote for this goal is that, prior to visiting Azamy, I had not realized just how – for lack of a better term – “third world” some of my students’ living conditions really are. Sungai Ranggam, for all intents and purposes, is a fairly well furbished school, and my neighborhood in Kampung Gajah is also very well-kept. For the few months prior to this, I had slowly come to assume that perhaps the “developing” areas of Malaysia are not quite so poor or run down as I had imagined. In visiting Azamy’s house, I realized just how wrong I was. Seeing the grime and rust all over his family’s shack, not to mention the fact that they all share a single room, was truly eye-opening. Azamy confessed that he often does not sleep at night, instead coming out to sit by the water and write in his diary. In that moment, I decided that upon leaving I will donate my guitar to him. With an instrument to practice – one that he seems very passionate about – he can maybe use this alone time wisely and develop an incredible skill. At the very least, the guitar could serve him the same purpose it has for me: a fun outlet whenever needed to express feelings and frustrations through song.

#4. As an American representative, my actions and words in Malaysia will carry more weight.

No specific example here, just to save time. However, I will say that it has been a little upsetting to me that I have had to start censoring my blog more. It is 100% my own fault, but because I have given access to so many people, these words that I am intending to write really just for myself must be carefully chosen to appeal to all their potential audiences. I just hope when I come back and re-read the posts several years down the line I am still able to remember the subtext and read between my own crafted lines.

#5: If I do not try something when it is offered to me, I may never have the chance again.

The anecdote here: Clay, Sophia and Esme have been talking for weeks about wanting to visit Gua Tempurung, a famous limestone cave in Gopeng that offers spelunking tours to 10,000 tourists every year. Because of my mild claustrophobia and aversion to the creepy crawlies that tend to live in dark moist places, I was pretty opposed to the idea. As I played through possible excuses in my head, this reminder kept popping up and I realized I needed to go, no matter how intimidated I felt. The crew even suckered me into doing the longest, hardest option of the four tours available: a 4.1 km, five-hour trek through the cave, culminating in swimming through an underground river to return safely to base camp. Looking back, I can say – as I might have predicted – that I am SO glad I did it. It was more physically strenuous than I had anticipated, especially for someone of my height, but it certainly felt like a once in a lifetime experience. I will forever treasure the mental images I captured as I laid on my belly pulling myself forward with my arms through the muddy river while keeping my head down so I would not get a concussion from the low ceiling of dangling stalactites. Maybe I will write more on this in my next post… it was an indescribably amazing experience in hindsight. In the moment, it kind of sucked… but in hindsight, man, was it awesome. And I might not have done it had pre-Fulbright Nate not published this reminder five months ago. Kudos to pre-Fulbright Nate. You go, Glen Coco.

#6: Once this experience is over, it is o-v-e-r and I will spend the rest of my life looking back at this period of time with fondness and longing.

This is a tough one to anticipate. You never know what you will miss most when you are in the midst of experiencing it all for the first time. I suppose in some ways this is the reminder I struggle most with as it puts a lot of pressure to savor every single second of this experience. I have only recently come to the conscious realization that, in spite of the temporary nature of my work here, the way I must conduct my life is very typical and a tad boring… very adult, so to speak. Talking to my besties Sam, Emma and Billy back home via webcam this past weekend, I came to realize that our current lifestyle patterns – working, coming home, eating, sleeping, lather, rinse, repeat, then try to have fun on the weekends – are very similar. Mine is just a fraction more exciting because it’s taking place across an ocean. This is not meant to downplay the experience I am having, of course. Rather, it is meant to illustrate why it is so tough to savor every… single… second. I see no problem with just conducting my life here as normally as possible; I thoroughly believe the greatest lessons I can learn here will come when I least expect them. And the fondness and longing are inevitable. Just walking out of school today and realizing I won’t see the kids or teachers for two more weeks left me feeling surprisingly emotional, so much so that I bolted to the car a little faster than usual so the students at the bus stop wouldn’t see me getting choked up. I can’t even imagine what it will feel like to wave goodbye to them in October.

#7: This truly is just the beginning.

As I prepare to enter the latter half of my grant year, the concern about planning for my post-grant future is starting to linger. Still, I feel less fearful about my prospects than ever before. I know the wealth of experiences I am having this year is providing an invaluable foundation to build upon when I get home. I can’t wait to see what that next chapter looks like, but five months is still quite a long time. Heck, a whole fraternity of boys just moved into my homestay for that length of time. For now, I’ll just keep taking it one day at a time, reminding myself of these goals whenever I can, and remembering especially to savor the smiles over the groans. Someday when I look back, they will both bring me the same swell of emotions.

Halfway through a journey with no end,

Nate

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